March 2, 2016 / 3:32 PM / a year ago

Gloom deepens over Ukraine peace deal before Paris meeting

Ukraininan President Petro Poroshenko (L) looks back, followed by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) after a meeting in Minsk, in this February 11, 2015 file photo.Grigory Dukor/Files

BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) - For months, as progress in implementing the Minsk peace deal for eastern Ukraine stalled, its architects, Germany and France, held out hope that with time and carefully calibrated pressure on Kiev and Moscow, the agreement could be pushed back on track.

But since a joint visit by the German and French foreign ministers to Ukraine's capital last week, a gloomier view has taken hold: that political dysfunction in Kiev has all but doomed the chances of it delivering on its own commitments under the peace agreement.

Against that backdrop and a rise in ceasefire violations in the east, where Ukrainian government forces are faced off against pro-Russian rebels, ministers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine meet in Paris on Thursday to discuss Minsk.

One of the meeting's main goals is to tackle what is now seen in many European capitals as the biggest hurdle to the peace deal -- Kiev's failure to push through an election law for the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine that would set the stage for a vote there by mid-year.

After barely surviving a no-confidence motion last month, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk is seen as too weak to deliver. And yet there are few viable alternatives to Yatseniuk.

"At some point you have to ask yourself, how can it go on like this?" a senior German official said of Minsk, which was hammered out a year ago in marathon talks in the Belarus capital between Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladmir Putin.

The election law was always going to be a tough sell domestically. There is little appetite in Ukraine to give Donbass more autonomy and hold elections there while its soldiers are being killed every week.

"It's all extremely fragile," a senior French official added, stressing the importance of the Paris meeting on Thursday.

For now, officials say, the goal is to keep Minsk on life support even if it looks dead.

Were they to openly admit failure, a second German official said, violence could spiral, with pro-Russian separatists running amok and renewing their push for Mariupol, a strategic port city in the east that, if captured by the rebels, could help them carve out a land corridor to Russia-annexed Crimea.

"It's a chaotic picture," the second German official acknowledged. "From a sequencing point of view you can't get around the fact that the election law needs to be passed. Kiev points to the security situation in the east as an excuse but we have told them it can't be. They need to deliver."

SANCTIONS

The other big concern is a breakdown of the European Union's consensus on sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis amid an increasingly poisonous atmosphere in the bloc, aggravated by divisions over the refugee crisis.

The commander of U.S. troops in Europe, Air-Force General Philip Breedlove, pointed a finger at Russia when he said on Tuesday violence in eastern Ukraine had increased significantly, with 71 attacks in 24 hours and 450 attacks over the past week.

"I believe that Russia will dial up and down the pressure along the line of contact to keep Kiev under pressure to meet their parts of the (Minsk) agreements first," he said.

Russia says it is not backing the rebels militarily while the rebels themselves blame Kiev for the violations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says neither side has pulled heavy weapons back as required.

Putin can make the case to sympathetic countries in central Europe that Russia has broadly delivered on its side of the Minsk bargain and therefore sanctions should be eased when they expire in July.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, seen as close to Putin, fired a first shot in the looming fight this week, saying the EU must have a "serious debate" about Russia sanctions in the months ahead. He rejected the idea of an automatic extension.

Italy, which has significant economic ties to Russia and pushed back against a rollover of the sanctions in January, is also expected to put up a fight.

Even in Germany, senior politicians like Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer have called for an easing of the sanctions, arguing that this may be the best way to win Russian cooperation in Syria.

Officials in the chancellery and foreign ministry reject the idea of a quid pro quo, saying the two conflicts must be dealt with in isolation.

But Ukrainian officials are clearly nervous.

"Europe is playing chess, but Russia is playing poker," Yehor Bozhok, Ukraine's acting ambassador to NATO, told Reuters. "Russia has no genuine will to conduct negotiations on Minsk. Any deal will only be achieved under pressure of sanctions."

Reporting by Noah Barkin, John Irish, Alessandra Prentice and Robin Emmott; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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